20. Scientists Accelerate Coral Reef Regrowth with Electricity

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The conservation group Reef Ecologic is using electrical currents to stimulate regrowth of damaged coral reefs, Alice Klein reported for New Scientist in September 2018. Coral reefs are crucial components of ocean ecosystems around the world, and damage to them from climate change and destructive fishing practices has been widely reported. Damaged coral regrows slowly, and rising ocean temperatures lead to bleaching that can cause entire reef systems to collapse permanently. As Klein reported, researchers have found that laying metal frames over damaged reefs and then running electric current through those frames draws in minerals that allow coral to grow up to four times faster than it otherwise would.

The technique is currently being used by conservationists with Reef Ecologic to restore sections of coral on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef that were badly affected by mass bleaching events in 2016 and 2017. The same technique has previously proven successful on reefs in the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia, Klein wrote.

A 2018 study published in the journal Nature Communications found that across the world’s 71,000 kilometers (44,000 miles) of reef coastlines, coral reefs “reduce the annual expected damages from storms by more than $4 billion.” A research team at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the University of Cantabria in Spain estimated that coral reefs provide the United States, including the US territory of Puerto Rico, with $94 million in flood protection benefit each year. Reefs, the study’s authors concluded, “provide a substantial first line of coastal defense and should be better managed for this benefit.”

In June 2018, USA Today covered the study that determined the economic value of coral reef conservation, but the corporate media have not done a good job of reporting the latest science on coral reef restoration. A December 2018 New York Times article focused on a study led by researchers at James Cook University in Australia, which found that the nation’s 2016 heat wave killed many of the Great Barrier Reef’s most heat-sensitive corals and “selected for the corals that could handle higher ocean temperatures.” The study, the Times concluded, “provides a measure of hope that coral reefs may be able to survive as oceans warm over the coming decades.” A July 2018 report in the New York Times, “Beauty and Bleakness: The Efforts to Conserve Coral Reefs,” featured lavish photographs, by Alexis Rosenfeld, of coral reefs and reef restoration efforts around the world. One of Rosenfeld’s photographs published by the Times depicted restoration workers in diving gear, laying “metal foundations in the Maldives in the hopes that new coral will grow,” but made no mention of Reef Ecologic’s Great Barrier Reef project. In 2015, the BBC reported on efforts in Indonesia to use electrically-charged metal frames to rejuvenate coral damaged by human activity; and in 2016 the Smithsonian featured an extended article on the same Indonesian project.

Alice Klein, “Divers are Attempting to Regrow Great Barrier Reef with Electricity,” New Scientist, September 20, 2018, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2180369-divers-are-attempting-to-regrow-great-barrier-reef-with-electricity/.

Mike Wehner, “Letting Coral Reefs Die Will Actually Cost Us More Than Saving Them,” BGR, June 14, 2018, https://bgr.com/2018/06/14/coral-reef-cost-recovery-effort/.

Student Researcher: Adam May (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Mackenzie Zippay (Sonoma State University)